Habitats increase attraction of beneficial speciesBy Joel M. LernerSpecial to the Washington Post
WASHINGTON – It’s been my experience that gardeners are people who care – not just about gardening, but about the environment, their communities, people around them and even the creatures that share their patch of earth.
Many people I plan gardens for ask for elements that attract wildlife, even though they’re not always specific about which animals and insects they want. No one ever asks for skunks or crickets, though sometimes they get them anyway, and people who live in the suburbs often ask to repel deer and rabbits. In recent years, the trend has been to ask for garden designs that use native plantings, and this type of flora is likely to attract native insects and animals.
Planting a garden like this is a way to restore habitat for native wildlife. According to the National Wildlife Federation, habitat loss is the single greatest threat to wildlife today. In 1973, the federation developed the Backyard Wildlife Habitat program to allow homeowners and community organizations to help preserve native wildlife. That means establishing a space that offers the four essential elements of survival: food, water, cover and places for beneficial insects and animals to raise their young. Gardeners also need to conserve natural resources by employing sustainable gardening practices. Spaces that meet the criteria can be certified as backyard habitats by the federation, offering not just a suitable environment for wildlife, but also a number of benefits for homeowners, including a free one-year membership in the federation, a lifetime subscription to the Habitats newsletter and the opportunity to post a sign displaying their commitment to habitat preservation.
Imagine what would happen if everybody in a community got his yard certified – what a boon that would be to the region’s biodiversity.
That’s what the people of Arlington County, Va., imagined about four years ago when they decided to go for certification as a Community Wildlife Habitat. With 403 residents, including every member of the county board achieving certification, Arlington County late last year became only the second county in the country to become a certified wildlife community. The other is Broward County, Fla.
Community certification required that Arlington have at least 300 certified yards; seven common areas, such as public parks or business grounds; and five participating schools. The wildlife federation has been gradually expanding the areas of certification as more people get involved.
“The enthusiasm for people wanting to do more than their backyard is wonderful,” said Mary Burnette, a spokeswoman for the federation’s Backyard Wildlife Habitat program. “It’s a very infectious program – people who do it are very anxious to solicit others to do the same.”
Creating a suitable habitat is fairly simple. It doesn’t require a degree in landscape design or an encyclopedic knowledge of plants. The first step is simply to assess your grounds and figure out what plants and features you already have to meet habitat criteria. Plants should be native, not non-natives, and especially not non-native invasives. If you’re not sure which of your plants are native, visit the wildlife federation’s Web site at www.nwf.org. There are lots of other Web sources for information on invasives and non-natives; use a search engine to track them down. You can also call your local cooperative-extension service. Go to .gov to find local offices.
“We do encourage native plants because they’ve evolved with native wildlife over eons,” said Roxanne Paul, assistant coordinator of habitat programs for the wildlife federation.
For certification, you will need at least two sources of food, mostly for the winged variety of wildlife, including bees, butterflies and birds. That can include supplemental sources, such as birdfeeders, or plants that supply berries, nuts, nectar or sap. You need at least one source of water, and that can be a birdbath or a pond or a stream running through your property. You need at least two sources of cover, such as trees, shrubs, dead tree stumps or trunks, or a brush pile (for birds and small mammals) or rock pile (for snakes and lizards). You also need at least two places where young can be raised. That could be birdhouses or trees or, for aquatic life, water. Nesting places sometimes double as cover.
Finally, you need to practice at least two methods of sustainable landscaping. Use a barrel to collect roof-runoff rainwater to water plants. Don’t use chemical pesticides or fertilizers – encourage natural pest predators, such as ladybugs, lacewings, spiders and praying mantises. Use compost to fertilize. Reduce use of “conventional” landscape practices, such as planting, fertilizing and weed-killing vast areas of lawn by using chemicals, or installing non-native invasive ground covers to reduce erosion. To irrigate, put in drip or soaker hoses, not sprinklers. If you have a cat, keep it indoors. Cats have a natural predator instinct that might prove dangerous to your habitat.
You don’t have to have a lot of space to create a good habitat. Containers on a deck or patio can be enough.
“We have certified balconies,” Paul said.
The National Wildlife Federation offers good advice on getting started and getting certification on its Web site. David Mizejewski, manager of the Backyard Wildlife Habitat program, has an excellent bo